AAMI Park, Melbourne
The RaboDirect Rebels turned in one of their finest all-round performances to date at The Stockade on Friday night, ultimately going down 41-35 to the Bulls but proving beyond doubt that they can front up to any side in the FxPro Super Rugby tournament.
The Rebels went toe-to-toe with their much-fancied South African visitors in a thrilling first half, the two sides both securing four-try bonus points in the opening period. But the Bulls showed experience worthy of three-time champions in holding on to a lead that Melbourne threatened to steal right up until the final whistle.
Captain Gareth Delve said that his side showed just what they are capable of when they maintain their intensity for the duration of a match.
“The effort was there for 80 minutes, so when we did concede a try there was a real united front to get back up there, put pressure on them and get ourselves back into the game,” said Delve.
“At no point did our heads drop, and that was lads across the park giving energy and really providing that spark. That’s got to be there every week – that energy for 80 minutes is something we can really build upon.”
The Bulls drew first blood, using their enormous forward runners to good effect before their clinical backline decided to strike. The ball moved like lightning out to winger Akona Ndungane on the right, whose searing pace gave the helpless covering defender no chance. Morne Steyn opened his spotless kicking tally for the evening with a composed conversion from out wide for an early 7-0 lead.
Rising to the challenge set by the title contenders, the Rebels pack combined bold and powerful running with great patience and ball protection, allowing them to break down the well-structured Bulls’ defence and giving Rodney Blake the platform to smash his way through for a try from short range.
With Beale’s conversion levelling the scores, the fly-half then set the pitch alight with a piece of individual brilliance for Melbourne’s second try. Beale spotted a mismatch in the Bulls defensive line and sped around the unfortunate prop marking him. With Cooper Vuna sprinting up on his inside, Beale drew the last man and put his teammate under the posts to bring the roaring Rebels fans to their feet.
The Bulls immediately responded after the surprise of going behind, Steyn and scrum-half Francois Hougaard directing their pack with consummate control to work an overlap and create a simple score for winger Bjorn Basson in the left-hand corner.
Steyn added a penalty kick and a converted try of his own to stretch his side’s lead, but the Rebels made their intentions clear by spurning two possible shots at goal for set pieces in the danger zone. Their confidence was well rewarded when scrum half Nick Phipps zipped through a gap beside the breakdown and stretched out in the tackle to score under the posts.
Beale’s conversion in the shadow of half-time looked as though it would send the teams into the changing rooms at 24-21, but both sides were determined to have one last say in a gripping first period. First the Bulls rumbled their way over the Rebels’ line with a perfectly-executed rolling maul, before Melbourne captain Gareth Delve capitalised on fantastic build-up work from his side to smash through a gap long after the siren, reining the scoreline back in to 31-28.
The match opened up again immediately after the break, with the Rebels playing some of their best rugby of the season. Melbourne’s forward runners threw themselves into contact and were able to provide Phipps with quick, clean ball. This in turn gave Beale the chance to put the Bulls’ defensive line on the back foot by taking the ball to the gain line, creating uncertainty with his glittering footwork and giving his outside backs the chance to run.
The stalemate continued until a piece of magic from Steyn gave the Bulls their fifth try. The Springbok five-eighth stroked a beautifully-weighted chip over the Rebels defence for on-running centre JJ Engelbrecht to collect untouched, his try stretching the lead to 10 points as the game entered the final quarter.
But this was an important night for the Rebels, and the return of Stirling Mortlock to the field brought not only huge cheers but an instant impact. Mortlock linked beautifully with centre partner Mitch Inman, whose sublime running line and pace took him inches short of the tryline before the supporting Vuna wriggled over beside the ruck to score.
Beale kicked his fifth conversion of the night to make it 38-35, but another Steyn penalty with less than 10 minutes to play challenged the Rebels to score a converted try for the victory they so craved. Unfortunately that was not to be, but the Rebels fought bravely for another chance to win it right until the death and showed great signs for their next match at home against the Crusaders next Saturday night.
What better challenge to face in your 100th game of FxPro Super Rugby than taking on the tournament’s most successful team of the modern era?
RaboDirect Rebels legend Mark Gerrard will have thousands of proud Melbourne fans roaring in support on Friday night, when he and his team-mates take the field at AAMI Park against the Bulls of South Africa, searching for their third win of the season.
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But while the Rebels and their fans alike hope for an unforgettable victory to honour a huge career milestone for one of the club’s founding players, none are under any illusions that such an achievement will be easy.
The three-time Super Rugby champions from Pretoria have dominated the competition in recent years, winning titles in 2007, 2009 and 2010 thanks to a line-up that boasted Springbok stars in numerous positions.
Their mid-table finish last year would have been a disappointment, but the Bulls of 2012 look to be returning to their former glory with six wins from their eight matches so far, their last three scalps including fellow title contenders the Crusaders and the Brumbies.
Friday night’s game marks the beginning of the Bulls’ four-week tour of Australia and New Zealand, so an early victory for the South African powerhouse will be considered non-negotiable. With tough matches against the Chiefs and Highlanders to follow, momentum from the first leg of their trip is key for the Bulls if they wish to steal the conference lead by the in-form Stormers.
Fly half Morne Steyn’s precision kicking has landed his side a staggering 128 of their 270 points so far this season, but it should not be forgotten that the Bulls also average 3.5 tries per game, with danger men Bjorn Basson and Zane Kirchner in the back three already notching up 10 five-pointers between them.
The platform for this try-scoring prowess is built upon the set-piece work of a formidable forward pack, whose lesser-known workhorses such as CJ Stander and Juandre Kruger are sure to join their infamous captain Pierre Spies on the international stage in the near future.
With Danny Cipriani having returned home to pursue his international career, fellow playmaker James O’Connor sidelined through injury and flanker Jarrod Saffy recently ruled out for the remainder of the season, the Rebels have been handed a testing opportunity to demonstrate the depth of their squad and the strength of their character against world-class opponents.
If that challenge and the desire to do Gerrard proud on his big night weren’t enough incentive for the Rebels, the return to action of another Melbourne hero should give them yet another reason to lift their game against their South African visitors.
Captain Stirling Mortlock’s long-awaited comeback has finally arrived, and the presence of the iconic former Wallaby skipper in the back line is sure to inspire the Rebels as much as it intimidates the Bulls.
With a night of celebration and gruelling rugby in prospect, the Rebels will be chomping at the bit to turn in a performance worthy of their team-mate and one of Australia’s great players.
The game kicks off at AAMI Park at 7.40pm this Friday night, with a curtain-raiser between Victoria and South Australia from 5.10pm